This blog article was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
Ask someone what The Primrose League was, and they’ll probably answer – An eighties pop band who had a few minor hits? In fact, this happened to be a Victorian social phenomenon that crossed the boundaries of sex and class.
Here are ten things you need to know about those golden years.
Cult of Disraeli
Herbert Samuel the statesmanlike Liberal politician noted in a memoir that his family hung a portrait of Benjamin Disraeli pride of place in their Kensington mansion. An example of the affectionate posthumous feeling the former Prime Minister generated amongst sections of society fuelled by a heady mixture of nostalgia and national pride.
While in office Disraeli regularly received primroses from Queen Victoria handpicked by the ladies-in-waiting of the Windsor Castle court. Coincidentally this distinctive flower came into seasonal bloom as the anniversary of his passing loomed. Thus, they were in tremendous demand ceremoniously plonked in many a city gents’ buttonholes or respectfully laid at his statute in Parliament yard. Sir George Birdswood a senior administrator in the India Office used the guaranteed exposure of The Times popular letters page to call forth that April 19th be forever known as ‘Primrose Day’ and the cult of Disraeli had now gone official.
Our Infant Hercules
Satire was booming in the Victoriana era and a forgotten gem of the scene was the St Stephens Gazette home of the talented cartoonist Tom Merry. One of his favourite targets to lampoon was Lord Randolph Churchill who he mockingly dubbed ‘Our Infant Hercules’. Since Disraeli’s premiership, the Conservatives had fallen by the wayside as Gladstone’s Liberals ruled the Westminster roost and Churchill a Beaconsfield superfan was positioning himself as the self-styled saviour of the Tories.
Despite a penchant for Monte Carlo casinos Churchill had the common touch and unlike some of his peers understood the importance of provincial working-class votes as the franchise expansion was triggered by various electoral reform statutes. Going on the offensive against Conservative gatekeepers like Lord Northcliffe he pushed for a rank-and-file revolution to create a ‘party within a party’ structure. This couldn’t be achieved alone, so he endeavoured to assemble a clique of conspirators.
Sign of Four
A bastion of Conservatism the exclusive Carlton Club was situated close to Pall Mall. Within its opulent confines, Churchill brainstormed with like-minded Parliamentarians Henry Drummond Woolf, John Gorst and Arthur Balfour aka ‘The Fourth Party’. This independent axis believed in developing a third way to pull the party from the doldrums to something that resembled the Disraeli glory days. Drummond Woolf was the driving force in forming the Primrose League to assist in the restoration of ‘Tory Democracy’ with Churchill the obvious figurehead.
They went live in November 1883 benefitting from the patronage of Sir Algernon Borthwick by using his tome The Morning Post to promote themselves supplemented by 720 Primrose rosettes they’d purchased. To be more than just a fly-by-night the League had to devise a sustainable organizational framework. Drummond Woolf had the vision to incorporate aspects of groups ranging from the Orange Order to the Foresters and Oddfellows.
Devotees to the Disraeli legend the Primrose League founders frequently dined with his close friend horticulturalist Lady Dorothy Nevill. She was appointed as the inaugural treasurer for the League’s Ladies Grand Council working in tandem with the two people closest to Churchill’s heart his mother the Duchess of Marlborough and his wife Jennie. They both remained committed to the cause even when he exited stage left from public life to concentrate on racehorse training.
By 1888 The Times was reporting that ‘women’s influence on the Primrose League was unprecedented’. The League struck a chord with upper-class matriarchs who’d been converted when residing in London for ‘the season’. The silver badge that marked you out as a Dame of Order became a much sought-after fashion accessory. As these ladies who lunch put aside philanthropy for politics and went back to the provinces under instruction to spread the word to the masses.
Meteoric would best describe the Primrose League’s rapid rise to ascendency. Its mass appeal was unfathomable to numerous commentators yet as the 1891 General Election dawned the movement had mushroomed to one million strong in a period when the electorate was only seven times that figure. What set it apart was a clearly defined brand identity that rewarded loyalty via its deferential honours system and an interconnective network of local groups taking the ‘Olde English’ name of habitations.
Subscriptions were staggered by wealth making it affordable to the industrial workers congregated in the growing urban sprawls and farming communities in traditional rural belts. The League espoused the chivalric virtues of brotherhood and benevolence supporting this virtuous claim with annuity provisions for members unprotected by the government against sickness, old age and death. This forward-thinking small-scale benefit allowance showed that behind the bluster and competition banners was a solid dependable comradeship.
Canvassing & Carriages
Lord Salisbury oversaw an elective tide that swept the Conservatives to power in the 1886 General Election. As Grand Master of the Primrose League, he was hugely thankful for the efforts of its sisterhood to help pull them over the line. At this juncture, rotten boroughs and unscrupulous seats were virtually extinct. Any prospective candidates had to earn a Parliamentary ticket with relentless canvassing and excessive leaflet distribution if victory was to be attained.
Doorstepping and town square soapboxing required transportation and here the League was indispensable with its availability of carriages supplied by the ever-reliable Grand Dames. On the ground level bicycle corps of mostly female formations assisted with voter registration. Occasionally encroached on the campaign trail by a disenchanted radical they were renowned for an ability to purposefully engage in debate. Information was heard at League meetings on the big issues such as trade tariffs and Irish Home Rule.
Fun, Fun, Fun
It wasn’t all work, work, work at the Primrose League as the leisure aspect was crucial to its dynamic. In the summer months country estates owned by the League luminaries opened their gates for memorable weekend fundraising fetes. Arriving sometimes on chartered trains the attendees in Sunday finery were treated to a jamboree of sports, shooting galleries, swings and conjurors.
All good clean fun as beer and skittles was replaced by burdock and buns. But this temperance atmosphere didn’t mean the entertainment provided ignored contemporary trends. Crowd-pleasing music hall acts, and exotic magic lantern slide displays figured high in the varied scheduling. Annual balls attracted a younger vibrant demographic wanting to dance the night away. Gordon Baden-Powell MP dropped in at the Ormskirk shindigs listening to Mr Harry Collins of ‘Magic Moments’ fame performing the ‘First Rose of the Year’ and his showstopper ‘The Place Where My Old Horse Died’.
Possibly the Primrose League’s biggest success story is Stanley Baldwin. An inter-war incumbent of 10 Downing Street respected across the board he was appreciative of his formative primula roots. He’d later remark upon its innovative infrastructure fondly recalling the youth wing titled Primrose Buds. Hundreds of juvenile branches were established by World War One and they gathered on Saturday mornings to march through towns proudly carrying the Union Jack and singing a hymn composed especially for them.
Attitudes changed considerably in the aftermath of the Great War. A new generation dismissed the League’s voluntary activism as naive not aligned with the modern ideals of liberalism and the burgeoning Independent Labour Party. Its presence may have receded, however, its influence bled into fresh initiatives. Optimism Clubs popped up in the depression-hit Northern heartlands of the hungry thirties. A chink of light for youthful factory girls participating in tea dances and nature rambles.
The Second Coming
Maintaining longevity from decade to decade is an almost impossible feat. To continue in the vein of yesteryear the Primrose League needed to appear relevant and that simply was not the case. Potted histories rightly celebrate the significant proportion of women within the League’s membership that peaked at a fifty-fifty ratio. Nevertheless, an ambivalence towards the suffragette’s equality programme seemed to ignite a slow drift from the political frontline. The spirt lived on in the steady growth of The Woman’s Institute.
The Primrose League Gazette hailed in 1943 the ‘second coming’ when Winston Churchill (Lord Randolph’s son) was handed his ‘birth right’ of the Grand Master baton. Any hopes that by sheer force of will he’d conduct the League to a semblance of its past glories soon proved unrealistic. Credit to him he still delivered a trademark stirring speech or two at the increasingly lowly attended Royal Albert Hall conventions.
Beyond the Fringe
Student fresher weeks at a variety of university campuses in the autumn of 1969 featured stalls trying to entice undergraduates to join a newly packaged Primrose League. Profiled by The Times twenty-something solicitor Bill Cash (a future MP) was attempting to revitalize this outdated institution. The newspaper correspondent wrote that when he addressed the capital’s Under 35s gathering at Central Hall the audience was populated by a fair smattering of debutants being shadowed by chaperones.
Entering the 21st Century the League was surviving primarily as a glorified dining club. Journalist Michael Crick devoted an episode of his Radio Four investigatory series Headstrong and Proud to its twilight existence beyond the fringe. Then a week prior to Christmas 2004 the Daily Telegraph reported without fanfare that the last man standing Lord Mowbray had turned the lights off. Donating the £70,000 pounds left in the League’s bank account to the Conservative coffers.
A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League 1883-2004 by Alistair Cooke
The Primrose League Handbook 1976
Conservative Women: a history of women and the Conservative Party 1874-1997 by GE Maguire
Tories and the People 1880-1935 by Martin Pugh
Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914-1999 by Martin Pugh
GBP/56/338/2: Primrose League File, Parliamentary Archives
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Founders of the Primrose League by Alistair Cooke
The Times Digital Archive